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Homelessness Task Force Challenged

Sxreen shot of white woman in a gray hat in City Hall Chambers.
Susan Merchant speaks at the Homelessness Task Force Meeting last week. Photo is a screenshot from the ORCA Media video of the meeting.
Audio Problems Frustrate a Contentious Public Hearing

The special public hearing held by Montpelier’s Homelessness Task Force  last week concerning the Guertin Shelter in the Main Street pocket park next to Shaw’s supermarket suffered audio problems that compounded an already difficult and contentious subject. The meeting was called to provide public input about the gazebo prior to the regular city council meeting on April 13, where the possible relocation of the structure will be discussed.

Since its relocation to Main Street last fall, the shelter has become a necessary gathering place for unhoused people in the community, but to others it is an unsightly, too-visible annoyance. While some in the community have expressed embarrassment about what they see as an eyesore, those advocating for improved and appropriate services for the homeless are embarrassed, and in some cases, angry, that government, the city or the state, has not taken effective action in the more than two years since the taskforce was established.

The audio problem became evident even before the meeting began when Vickie Ann Lane began to speak via the online Zoom channel and was disrupted by a persistent echo. Attempts to correct the problem continued throughout the meeting but were unsuccessful. Moreover, on the publicly available recording of the meeting the voices of the hosts at the front of the room are frequently difficult to understand.

City Councilor Conor Casey, serving as moderator and as representative for the council opened the meeting by noting “We’ve seen lots of complaints recently: litter, ugly comments to passersby, and violent behavior. We need to handle people in a respectful and humane manner,” he said, adding that “what’s going on with this structure is a symptom of a larger problem in our society, in central Vermont — and Vermont.”

Opening a Tough Conversation

Task force member Ken Russell acknowledged that the issue “leaves us with a tough conversation,” and pointed out that the city has spent over $80,000 hiring peer outreach coordinators, providing hotel vouchers for folks who would not be eligible for the state program. and set up $420,000 of the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds for next winter to support a warming shelter. “We need to think about what we’re going to do in the interim,” he said.

Pointing out a paradox in the current situation, Russell said, “How do we as a community share space? Some are concerned that Guertin Park has become an ad hoc outdoor service center for folks with a lot of unmet needs. And it’s serving [those needs] in a very inadequate way.” He added that, “I know these folks. I see people helping each other.”

Outreach worker Zach Hughes and Erica Reil, both task force members, wondered about the wisdom of moving the gazebo because from a support and policing perspective it works where it is. “Where it is now the police officers know everyone who is at the pocket park,” Reil said.

Dawn Little, a Good Samaritan Haven staffer who works at Another Way on Barre Street supported the positives of the current location, noting that it is in a good, central place for providers to meet with those who need help.

City Hall Data and Location Alternatives

Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer, who is preparing a presentation for the city council’s April 13 meeting, said that only two other possible locations for moving the gazebo have been Identified: Off Elm Street at North Branch Park or into Hubbard Park if the roof is removed. 

With the qualification that, “I don’t want to seem alarmist, I was just asked to share this data,” a police department summary of calls since 2019 when it was located on the Recreation Path above the state parking lot west of Taylor Street reports a nearly 400% percent increase in calls: intoxication, lost property, illegal dumping, fights, general disturbances, harassment, and disorderly conduct. 

Police have also made numerous welfare checks at the gazebo and quite a few medical transports, “which gets to what Zach is talking about — it’s in a place that is immediately accessible to our EMS team,” Niedermayer said. Eight medical transports have been made from the shelter in the last few months.

How the Gazebo Came to Be

When Nat Frothingham asked, “What was the original intent for the structure?” local architect Ward Joyce explained that it was conceived in collaboration with Mayor Anne Watson as a “pausing spot,” an amenity along the recreation path, particularly for students walking to and from the high school. “AARP (the American Association of Retired People) contributed a lot of money toward it, and they have been very disappointed with the lack of maintenance by the city,” Joyce said, noting that the AARP has since bowed out of the project.

Referring to the principle that successful public spaces must have seven things that attract and engage people, Joyce said, “While it was moved to the current location with good intentions, that park is abysmal, because there is nothing there. To put a single pavilion in a park and say you have created a public space is an utter failure. It needs to be diversified so there are reasons for people to go there.” 

Joyce proposed, “How about making it nice instead of talking about how bad it is — because it is bad. Let’s get community volunteers to go there and build a team. And clean it, take care of it. Why don’t we do this together as a community? Let’s start a Go Fund Me campaign, I’ll give the first $100 right here. Raise $10,000 of public money and use $100,000 of the $425,000 of ARPA funds to make a real park, including a community kitchen and a skateboard ramp. Move the gazebo back from Main Street and make the homeless shelter twice as big and put lights in it,” he said.

Public Comment

Susan Merchant, who frequently has volunteered to clean the shelter and the area around it, agreed with moving the gazebo back from Main Street. “It’s the same issue that’s been going on for years and years. You need sanitation. It’s not a homeless shelter, but a lot of the people there have been very good about policing themselves,” she said.

Montpelier resident Mary Messier said, “I feel that Montpelier needs spaces where people can sit with something over their head — six or eight places where people can stop and sit. People need to congregate and feel they’re within their tribe.

Glen Hutcheson, a former city councilor and member of the task force, speaking for himself and not the nearby Drawing Board, where he works, said, “It seems the goal of moving the structure is excluding people from a public space and to the extent that is the goal, I think it’s wrong.” While he dislikes the litter, shouting, fighting, and the plight of people who are unhappy, he wants the community to work to minimize those behaviors. 

Obstacles Facing the City

Neidermayer responded that the land [soil] in the park is contaminated, “which is the reason we can’t dig down to flatten it out and put the gazebo elsewhere on that lot.” Also, it is in the floodplain, which precludes having portable toilets on the site, she said. Regarding restroom access, she added, “During the day Shaw’s has been very accommodating; city hall is open, and there is a 24-hour bathroom at the police station.”

Neidermayer added that when the gazebo was moved, the city anticipated receiving a grant that did not come through. A search for money for improving the park’s amenities is ongoing. The city is currently working with the Career Center and a youth who is interested in putting a community garden in the space.

 What is Needed?

Jamie Menard oversees the warming center for the homeless at the Transit Center in the evenings and works at Another Way as the outreach support specialist. “I work with these people and talk with them almost every day. Their main issue is not having shelter — places to get out the rain, the snow, the cold. There is no other place, besides the Transit Center for them to go to get out of the weather. We need more places for people to gather, so people won’t be congested in one spot,” she said.

Stephen Whitaker, who had served on the homelessness task force when it was established, said, “This is not the ‘people who are using the park’s’ problem; it is the dysfunction of the city council and the HTF (Homelessness Task Force). Two and a half years later we still don’t have shelter for these folks. We don’t have toilets or sanitation facilities or access to a place to charge phones. Picnic tables and benches have been removed. Debris has not been cleaned up under the bridge where the gazebo was previously located. It is the gross negligence of the city in providing services and shelter.” 

Morgan W. Brown, who also served previously on the task force, has been housed for 12 years but has had long experience with being unhoused. “When you’re unhoused you don’t take things for granted like you do when you have a place. The solution isn’t to move it. This is about the unmet needs of a certain population certain other people don’t want around. What people need is housing, and that takes various forms. If we do want to do something about it, we need to quit making excuses and saying the feds aren’t doing enough and the state isn’t doing enough. Montpelier needs to step up more. Other communities have done it. It takes political will to make this a higher priority,” he said.

Brown suggested the Rec Center on Barre Street could be renovated to provide accessible access to a daytime shelter, transitional housing, permanent housing, and a community room. “And if not there, put a structure where the park is now. We need to be a community of inclusion, not exclusion. The root cause is poverty and lack of housing,” he said.

Peter Kelman, who has worked to resolve homelessness in several states, noted that the situation with Guertin Park may be where the situation has collided, but mixing it with the problem of homelessness is not helping. “We know exactly what people who are unhoused in Montpelier need. They need bathrooms, they need showers, they need lockers, and they need a place they can go and sit out of the elements during the day and where they can go at night.”

Kelman said the city is managing a problem that should be handled by the state, and the state points to its various agencies and organizations. “The problem is it’s not being handled and it’s taking place on the city streets.” He maintains the city needs to say, “We are going to do something about it.” A specific proposal has been brought to the city by Kelman and others but has been ignored, he said.

Because of the technical problems with the audio, several participants requested the city have another hearing with proper technology in place. Whitaker demanded another meeting: “You’ve been neglecting your obligations for too long and everybody is fed up with it.”

Hughes said, “I want to challenge the city to move forward and do something big, and let this be the community conversation starter.”

Casey concluded the meeting by saying “This has been an uncomfortable but necessary discussion. This city is more than the seven members of the city council. Obviously there’s no consensus tonight — and I don’t think there will be a consensus — but if we listen to each other with respect as neighbors, I think we have a lot of valuable things to add to this discussion.”

Minutes of the meeting, summarizing the discussion, are available on the city’s website.